My love affair with the Comrades Marathon began in 2011 when a pair of colleagues insisted that I couldn’t call myself a runner until I had completed the Ultimate Human Race. Forget the fact that I had been running for years, was a 90 minute half marathon man and could skin them both in any race from 100m to the marathon.

That counted for nothing so long as I hadn’t ticked Comrades off my bucket list – that’s couch potatoes for you. So I like any egotistical, testosterone-fuelled twenty-something I took up their challenge.

In those years one entered Comrades in the year of the race and not the year before as it is now, so I procrastinated, busying myself with my preparations for my wedding in April. Naturally I entered the race, but the traditional January, February and March training missed me as I got caught up in the excitement of getting married.

Although I continued training my running was limited to nothing over 21km, which meant that when I went to Victoria Falls for my honeymoon in the last week of April, it eventually dawned on me that in less than six weeks, I would have to run almost 90km and I hadn’t even run a standard 42,2km marathon yet.

So I turned up at the Wally Hayward Marathon on 1 May 2011, armed with speed and no mileage. Thankfully, I took the advise of a friend Mpho Morabe who had run Comrades the year before. When Morabe realised that I would not take his advice and withdraw from Comrades because I had a point to prove to my couch potato colleagues, he advised me to go through the half marathon mark in two hours and then just hold on. I finished in 4:16. Qualified.

As painful as that first marathon was, nothing would prepare me for 29 May. I had bought a few books about the race and learned about the likes of Arthur Newton and Alan Robb and even pictured the five big hills of Fields, Cowies, Bothas, Inchanga and Polly Shortts but seeing and running truly was believing.

We set off from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and I took the advice of the legendary Bruce Fordyce. The nine time winner was notorious for preaching that Comrades only started after halfway, so I naively planned to go crest the hills of Inchanga in five hours giving myself six hours to finish the second half. Things didn’t go as planned, because when I went through the halfway point at Drummond the announcer was screaming on the PA system that Stephen Muzhingi had just won the race in Pietermaritzburg. That’s when the reality set in.

I sat down somewhere around 50km and thought to myself: “what am I doing here?” Luckily two or three young boys had the answer. The youngsters living in the area offer wonderful support and one, seeing that I was in serious emotional, mental and physical distress, splashed a cup of water of my head and shouted ‘sukuma malome! Gijima phela!”

I got up. It was in the second half of that first Comrades that I learnt so much about myself and my fellow South Africans. It was as though every time I considered throwing in the towel an angel would appear to cheer me on. The Gabriel of those being the elderly Indian gentlemen that saw me hobbling some where around the 70km mark and then rubbed my knee with ice for good 10 minutes before insisting that I continue to finish.

I did. In 11:54. The would be five consecutive races after that one, including my best finish of 10:54 in 2013 but there is nothing like the first time. I was terribly under-prepared but the spirit of Comrades carried me through the race and show those two couch potatoes – Jeff Moloi and Thabiso Mosia – both of whom celebrated my achievement.

Every South African has to experience this race at least once in their lifetimes.

* Mosibodi Whitehead is Khaya FM Sports Editor

The Star